5 Reasons to Read Fairy Tale Retellings

Fairy Tales

For countless years, fairy tales have been told and retold, and right now there’s a strong growth of re-imagined fairy tales in both books and films. So if you haven’t tried a fairy tale retelling yet, here are some of the reasons you might consider it:

  1. Through the centuries, fairy tales and their variants have been passed down in oral and literary tradition, and they reveal much about the past–about customs, traditions, and cultural concerns. Fairy tale retellings combine this rich sense of history with something fresh and new, continuing the centuries-old tradition of forming and reforming these stories that engage across cultures and generations.
  2. Although fairy tales reflect our past, they also communicate timeless themes. Despite common views, few fairy tales were simple for children, and fairy tale novels offer the opportunity to explore the depth of potential meaning in a story. Retold fairy tales can borrow from thematic elements that exist within the original story and flesh them out in a compelling way or they can draw out new meanings altogether, weaving together story elements we all know and love to reflect enduring themes. Either way, they infuse new life into the traditional stories.
  3. Fairy tales often reveal truth about the world around us, about the strengths and weaknesses of human nature and the way the world is structured. GK Chesterton explored this in detail in his essay The Ethics of Elfland. Through the context of story, the original tales demonstrate valuable principles and many of the retellings follow this pattern.
  4. If you already enjoy fairy tales, you’ll find that fairy tale retellings allow for deeper characterization and more intricate plots as the medium changes from short story to novel length (although some fairy tales did originally appear as novel or novella length).
  5. As with any novel, the primary reason to read it is because you enjoy it, and it offers something of value. Fairy tale retellings have the potential to do both, and unless you’re willing to experiment with the genre, you may never know.

Anyone have suggestions on a place to start reading fairy tale novels? I propose Beauty by Robin McKinley or Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis–actually, I suggest both because they illustrate the great variety found in fairy tale retellings.


  • sally apokedak
    June 12, 2012 - 10:54 am · Reply

    Everyone I know loves ‘Til We Have Faces. I’ve read just about everything by Lewis except that one. I’ve tried it and I just can’t make myself read it. I don’t like the characters and can’t get into the story.

    But Beauty sound good.

    I love Shannon Hale’s stuff. Loved Goose Girl and Book of a Thousand Days, which were both based on fairy tales, though I think they strayed hugely from the originals. Oh, and my favorite might be East by Edith Pattou. Loved that book. So good. Edited by Michael Stearns who always does great books.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 13, 2012 - 3:03 pm · Reply

      I tried Till We Have Faces once or twice before it hooked me, and then I was glad I read it. One of my initial issues was that I didn’t like the characters, but when I read further it began to engage me and I did care about the characters in the end. All that said, I know how it goes with certain books–they just don’t resonate, for whatever reason. 🙂

      I just looked up East and added it to my wishlist. I’ve always liked East of The Sun, West of The Moon, and your endorsement has me quite interested. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Janeen Ippolito
    June 12, 2012 - 11:11 am · Reply

    “Spindle’s End” by Robin McKinley–great example of the sheer complexity you can stuff into a fairy tale as simple as “Sleeping Beauty.”

    “Ella Enchanted” by Gail Carson Levine–I maintain as one of the most effective, cleanly-written, fun re-tellings. “Fairest” ranks a bit below this because I found it harder to relate to–she made her Ayorthaians so different that I couldn’t connect to them. But still good.

    “Cinder” by Melissa Marr – okay, I mostly skimmed this one because I was in a hurry, but it’s an interesting science-fiction retelling that recently came out.

    Interesting how most of the retellings I recommend are middle grade or YA. Mercedes Lackey has a series of flip-floppy retold fairy tales, the “Five Hundred Kingdoms” series, but they tend to be highly sexualized (for the most part), and sometimes they run out of steam.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 13, 2012 - 3:06 pm · Reply

      Thanks for all the examples, Janeen! That’s a helpful reference. I tend to gravitate toward the YA retellings also, even though I write fantasy for adults. I’ve noticed that adult fairy tale retellings in the general market tend to contain content I’d rather avoid. 🙂

      I’ve heard a number of people talking about Cinder, and the concept is interesting enough to me that I’ll probably end up trying it.

  • Skadi meic Beorh
    June 13, 2012 - 2:59 pm · Reply

    I work with the Red Riding Hood story, albeit subtly, in my forthcoming (July 2012) novel ‘The Place Where Infinity Blooms’ (Cogwheel Press). In the sequel, ‘A Thousand Wrong Dancers,’ I take the Christian classic ‘Mister God, This Is Anna’ and turn it on its head and into a faerytale… of sorts.

    I find that I don’t too much like the retelling of faerytales, but then again, my reading timeline stops with authors from the Edwardian period.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 13, 2012 - 3:16 pm · Reply

      I know that more storytellers have begun to explore Red Riding Hood, and in contrast to the blithesome children’s versions, it can get pretty grim. It sounds like the perfect fairy tale thread to add to your story, given your subtitle of “a dark fantasy.”

      In Cinder’s Midnight by Jeffrey Overstreet, he also subtly added some story threads from Beauty and the Beast, and I liked that method of incorporating fairy tales…but I also enjoy straight up retellings.

      I find that most fairy tale writers bring something significant and new to the story, rather than simply rehashing the old, and I enjoy retellings in part because they preserve elements that appealed to me from the original stories and give them fresh life. But I know not everyone will like them. 🙂

      • Skadi meic Beorh
        June 14, 2012 - 11:49 am · Reply

        Thank you for your thoughts, Sarah, and for this wonderful blog. Yes, I also touch on the Green Knight in my novel. The retellings that I find most wearisome are the Celtic myths or ‘cycles.’ They all seem to be the same story, told over and over again, as if the writers all say ‘Hmph! I can do better than that.’ And the story is never told any better, there are no new nuances, no twists, no backstory, nothing. When I set out to write, I let the story tell itself. I may have a vague idea of what will happen, but I am always surprised–and sometimes shocked–to hear what comes out of my characters’ mouths, or to watch what they are doing, etc. Writing is an adventure, and for me, as a Christian, the best way that I have to share the life abundant that Jesus has brought to us, and continually manifests in us until that Day when we all are welcomed home to the ‘Sunshine Country’ (if you haven’t read that book, place it very high on your list).

        • Sarah Sawyer
          June 18, 2012 - 5:29 pm · Reply

          I appreciate your encouraging words…and that you take the time to leave thoughtful comments! I know what you mean about certain stories being overdone. A book that draws on fairy tale and myth shouldn’t feel like a repeat of the exact same story–but unfortunately sometimes it does.

          Writing is an adventure, and for me, as a Christian, the best way that I have to share the life abundant that Jesus has brought to us, and continually manifests in us until that Day when we all are welcomed home to the ‘Sunshine Country’ (if you haven’t read that book, place it very high on your list).

          Great way to describe writing! I feel similarly in many ways. And I haven’t read the Sunshine Country, so I’ll have to go look it up. 🙂

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